MEATH manager Seamus McEnaney blasted his team's performance against minnows Carlow at Tullamore, saying: "We're lucky to be still in the Leinster championship."
But McEnaney, to his credit, made no excuses. He refused to hide behind bland manager-speak after the devastating blow of conceding a sensational late goal by corner-forward JJ Smith that earned Carlow a draw.
This was a seismic result for Carlow. Their football teams had previously clashed only eight times with Meath in 110 years, losing all of those matches. But yesterday the losing streak was halted.
For Meath, the pre-match favourites, this was a massive setback. They came into the game on the back of a solid opening victory against Wicklow, while Carlow had to shake the winter rust out of their bones for championship fare.
McEnaney did not mince his words after the game.
"We knew exactly what we were facing here today -- there was no word of complacency in us," he said.
"Carlow had played Cork and Dublin in challenge matches and went to Cork for a training camp. We knew they were a seriously well-prepared team and would come here with all guns blazing.
"It wasn't good enough on the day and unless we improve our performance it won't be good enough next Saturday night."
Carlow manager Luke Dempsey and his players have shipped plenty of local criticism for their Division 4 performances in the National League, but now he hopes the supporters reassess the value of their team.
"It was real championship stuff -- a great match. We really put our hearts and souls into it for Carlow," said Dempsey.
"We were so much the underdog that often you wonder when is the underdog ever going to put their head over the wall and jump down the other side with counties like Meath, but our players showed no inferiority whatsoever, and that's what I was proud about.
"The job is only halfway done, so we hope to put in a similar determined performance next weekend and finish the job."
Dempsey's heroes were led by midfielders Brendan Murphy, who his manager justifiably described as "immense", and Darragh Foley. The latter played despite the death of his grandfather on Saturday.
Smith scored the critical goal in the 72nd minute and contributed 1-5, four from frees.
Daniel St Ledger -- cousin of soccer international Sean St Ledger -- did well until he tore a hamstring in the first minute of the second half; and Padraig Murphy, Kieran Nolan and Shane Redmond were the pick of a committed bunch of defenders.
Championship football -- it really is a unique experience, in which anything can happen, and that's how it was at O'Connor Park.
This game was one in which Meath were grinding their way to what looked a certain but uninspiring victory.
The Royals had set down a marker with Cian Ward's 24th-minute goal to go 1-5 to 0-3 ahead. They led 1-6 to 0-7 at half-time, but kept nudging over scores in response to any points that Carlow were scoring.
And then, out of nothing, the contest mutated from humdrum to pulsating drama and all in the last 15 minutes.
There were three red cards, missed chances by both sides, players shaping up to each other, scrappy play interspersed with some good passages of passing and kicking -- and finally, the dream score for Carlow.
On reflection, the 53rd-minute dismissal of Meath midfielder Conor Gillespie for a second yellow card offence arguably assisted Carlow, but then the Royals responded with a point by stalwart Brian Farrell to put them 1-10 to 0-9 ahead with 15 minutes to play.
Since when do Meath, whether with 15 or 14 men, let a lead like that slip -- especially to a team that has no pedigree against them?
Well, it happened, incrementally, inexorably, in front of the Carlow faithful that were among the 10,171 spectators at Tullamore.
Eight minutes from the end of normal time, Carlow stood at 0-12 to Meath's 1-12. At 70 minutes, the score was the same, and three minutes of added-time for injuries were to be played.
But somehow -- from the depths of their being -- Carlow dredged up one more assault on the Royals goal and in a glorious move, Nolan found substitute Keith Jackson with a precise pass, and he transferred it to Smith, who smashed the ball into the Meath net.
There was one more twist in the tale. Typical Meath, we thought -- stung but with one more rampage left in them.
Joe Sheridan surged forward with the ball. He was 35 metres out from goal.
All he wanted was to be fouled and get a free, so Ward could win the game -- but somehow Brendan Murphy managed to grapple with Sheridan and the ball popped into Murphy's hands to save the day.
Scorers -- Meath: C Ward 1-3 (2f), B Farrell 0-4, G Reilly 0-3, D Tobin, M Burke 0-1 each. Carlow: JJ Smith 1-5 (4f), Brian Murphy 0-3 (2f), Brendan Murphy, D Foley, P Reid, D St Ledger (f) 0-1 each.
Meath -- D Gallagher 7; D Keogan 7, K Reilly 7, B Menton 7; D Tobin 7, S McAnarney 7, M Burke 7; C Gillespie 7, B Meade 7; A Forde 7, P Gilsenan 7, G Reilly 7; B Farrell 7, J Sheridan 7, C Ward 7. Subs: J Queeney 7 for A Forde (44); M Collins 7 for P Gilsenan (50).
Carlow -- T O'Reilly 7; P Murphy 8, C Lawlor 7, B Kavanagh 7; K Nolan 7, S Redmond 7, T Bolger 7; Brendan Murphy 9, D Foley 8; Brian Murphy 8, P Reid 7, E Ruth 7; JJ Smith 8, S Gannon 7, D St Ledger 7. Subs: D Hayden 7 for D St Ledger (36); P Lambe 7 for T Bolger (51); K Jackson for D Foley (60); C Murphy for Brian Murphy (67).
Ref -- B Cassidy (Derry).